It is a truism in this world that you can live around something your whole life without any inkling that it exists, and then, once it’s been pointed out to you, you can’t stop seeing it. Humans see things that we deem relevant to our lives, and, as a simple matter of sanity, filter out that which we don’t need to see or know.
Seaweed is one such thing. Its very name is a throwaway, a suggestion of worthlessness, of a status as little more than flotsam on the waves. Over the years quirky enthusiasts have tried to rename seaweed “sea vegetables,” but this effort has been about as effective as the “movement” to call acorns “oak nuts.” Quixotic at best. So seaweed it is, and shall be.
As someone who has spent much of his life on or near the ocean, I’ve lived among seaweeds more or less forever. I am certain there is a faded photo of me on some New Jersey or New England beach picking up a stinking hunk of rotted kelp at the high tide line, sand flies buzzing a halo around me. I am sure I am beaming. Since I was a toddler I’ve been fascinated by these washed-up heaps of stinky detritus — but not necessarily for the seaweed itself. T
hat was just the substrate for the really cool stuff, the mermaid’s purses and little crabs, bits of fishermen’s nets and, if I was really lucky, a dead fish to poke at.
At some point in my teens I became dimly aware that all this leathery, reeking whatever — at the time I wasn’t sure exactly what seaweed was (it’s algae) — was edible. I had no idea how anyone could eat it. Every few years afterward, however, I’d collect a new tidbit.
For instance, a seaweed called dulse is used to gel things, like a blancmange. Then in my 20s, I discovered sushi, and finally found a seaweed I liked: nori. Nori wrapped around rice and fish is pretty much the extent of most people’s understanding of how seaweed can be eaten.
But that’s just a bare scratching of what happens to be a whole world of uses for sea vegetables, er, seaweed. As it happens the Scots, Scandinavians, Native Americans and lots of different Asian groups eat seaweed far more frequently than do the rest of us. Kelp pickles, for example, are fantastic. (I make them, and will post the recipe soon.)
The turning point for me was again, at a sushi bar. I can’t remember exactly when I had my first seaweed salad, but I am pretty sure I ordered as some sort of gastronautic feat of bravado, thinking it would be slimy and fishy.
It isn’t. A little slippery, yes, but more like cold noodles than the outside of a salmon or a pike. And it was not fishy in the slightest. Not at all, which surprised me. Cool, crunchy and again a bit slippery, seaweed salad has more in common with, say, our familiar crunchy salads of cucumber, corn, tomatoes and red onion than it does with anything oceanic.
I now order seaweed salad whenever I get the chance. But could I make it myself?
Turns out the answer is a resounding yes. And here’s why: No North American seaweeds are toxic. Yep, some taste better than others, but none will hurt you. That gives a forager license to play. And so one morning I drove out to Bodega Bay at low tide to see what I could find.
I didn’t go into the rocks blind, however. I am a voracious reader of books, and I knew there had to be some good seaweed books out there. Turns out there are fewer than you might think, but I am particularly fond of the very idiosyncratic Sea Vegetables by Evelyn McConnaughey. It’s a low-budget book with some good line drawings and a lot of murky, black-and-white images, but it gives you the basics and it’s a fun read, of only for the bizarre hippy recipes like “alaria soyfood delight.”
So, armed with this book, I went seaweeding. First thing I was looking for was kelp. Not bullwhip kelp, mind you, but a Laminaria, or kombu kelp.
One of the things you need to get used to with seaweed is that lots of them don’t have common names. This one might be Laminaria saccharina, but more likely it’s a young L. longicrurus — not that you need to care. They’re all edible, and great in a salad sliced very thin.
Also on my hit list were fir needle seaweed, Analipus japonicus, which looks like fir needles, as well as a seaweed that looks like red mermaid’s hair, which is a Gracilaria species. Why these? They’re delicate, pretty to look at and McConnaughey says they’re good in salads.
It was a bonanza. I found almost every kind of seaweed Evelyn mentions in the book. Most I dried. Some I pickled. These I ate fresh.
Keep in mind where I collected seaweed it was open to the Pacific Ocean and very clean. I would not recommend picking seaweed in back bays, which can be polluted. You should also know that by law in most states you must use scissors or a knife to snip off the seaweed, leaving the “holdfast” that attaches the seaweed to the rock; doing this will let the seaweed grow back. in California, your daily limit is 10 pounds, which is a lot of seaweed if you think about it…
Seaweed, being algae, tends to not keep very well. Thus the stink when it begins to rot. At best it will keep only a few days in the fridge without further preservation. After that it begins to get truly slimy and smelly. You can blanch your seaweed rather than eat it raw, and this will buy you a couple more days in the fridge.
Coolest thing about blanching seaweed? The second it hits the boiling water, it turns bright green. Crazy! Bigger seaweeds like the kombu kelp and such are fine raw, but I recommend you boil all the finely fronded and delicate seaweeds for one reason: Little critters love to hang out in them, as does sand. Boiling for 30 seconds turns said critters bright orange (easy to pick out) and drops the sand to the bottom of the pot. Plunge the seaweed into ice water and it’ll still be as crunchy as it was when it was raw.
You will notice one other ingredient in my seaweed salad that isn’t traditional: Sea beans, also known as samphire, glasswort or pickleweed. (You can read more about sea beans here.) I like the salty crunch of this vegetable, and it grows right near the seaweed, so it seemed like a natural.
As for the dressing, I had to go Asian. I adapted my salad dressing from one I read on my colleague Marc Matsumoto’s site No Recipes. It’s your standard rice vinegar-soy-sesame oil dressing you get at the sushi restaurant.
When I finally brought everything together, I admit to a twinge of nervousness: Yeah, everyone says all seaweeds are edible, but what if I didn’t like this combination? After all, the salad you get in the sushi restaurant is mostly made from Japanese seaweeds that are imported here. Holly and I took a bite, and breathed a sigh of relief: It was that same lovely, crunchy, saline salad we were used to, only with even more crunch from the sea beans.
So I am a convert. Finally. I have been playing with seaweeds all summer, and I will post more of my experiments in the coming weeks. There are a couple awesome ones I can’t wait to write about! Suffice to say I will be bringing sealable plastic bags with me whenever I hit low tide from now on.
But I still can’t bring myself to call them sea vegetables. Sorry.
- 1 pound various seaweeds
- 1/3 pound sea beans, salicornia, saltwort, pickleweed, glasswort, samphire (optional)
- 3 green onions, sliced very thin
- Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
- 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- To make the dressing, whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves.
- Get a large pot of water boiling. Boil the sea beans for 1 minute and then plunge into a bowl of ice water. Boil any seaweed you want to blanch (see post above) for 15 seconds, then plunge into the ice water. Pat the vegetables dry and put into a large bowl with any of the seaweeds you want to eat raw.
- Toss the salad with the dressing and chill. You want to eat this salad very cold. When you are ready to serve, mix in the green onions and sprinkle sesame seeds on top.
You can also buy seaweed. Look for wakame, which is the typical seaweed used in salads. You can find it in many Asian stores. It usually comes dried, and will reconstitute almost like fresh. Virtually every sushi restaurant in America uses the dried stuff, so don't worry.